Posted September 9, 2010
The director’s cut is a familiar term in the world of film, but an equivalent “author’s cut” in the realm of
books is not a widespread notion. Why might that be?
I’m thinking of this because I recently saw Avatar, the re-release that is, with an extra 9 minutes of footage. For reasons which I’m a little embarrassed to discuss now, I saw Avatar in lowly 2D on its original release, and I pretty much hated it. I thought the story was terrible, and that the special effects were… ok, but not much of a defence against how the story was hurting my brain.
My general stance on the whole idea of a director’s cut is pretty simple: the deleted
scenes were deleted for a reason. In other words, the meddling folks who force all these creative prima donna types to cut their movies down to an acceptable running length for theatrical release are largely correct. Now, there are some obvious exceptions to this: for example, Blade Runner functions better as a movie in the Director’s Cut. The example is muddied by the fact that Ridley Scott keeps messing about with the movie, and that you have to watch it pretty closely to follow everything if your first experience of the movie is the Director’s Cut. So I’ll rephrase: Blade Runner functions better as a work of art in the Director’s Cut.
An exception to my exception is James Cameron’s extended versions of Aliens, which took an already legendary movie, legendary mainly for its ferocious action scenes, and fleshed out the story. The movie now works for people who don’t particularly care for action movies or monster features, etc (trust me, I’ve seen it happen). You can’t really say that about any of the imitators of Aliens.
So what happened when I rewatched Avatar, this time in 3D, and this time with some extra padding on the story? I have to admit, I now see why people got a little crazy over the effects in this movie: the 3D is way, way better than any other 3D movie I’ve seen. To quantify, let’s say that it’s 100x better and leave it at that. The story still stinks (unobtainium, white man’s burden, and so forth), but the bits and pieces flow together much more smoothly and I didn’t mind the longer running time.
This brings me back around to the idea of an author’s cut, and why it’s not a widespread notion. I think the explanation is pretty basic and it comes down to cold hard cash. It costs a lot of money to make nine extra minutes of Avatar footage, and Cameron got to add it because the other 160+ minutes made a boatload of dollars. Yes, I know that cost pressures exist in the publishing industry, and, yes, I know there are lots of books that have been split in two for cost reasons, but the scale of money involved is radically different.
Generally speaking, I think books get released in a state that’s pretty close to how their author intended; if that’s not the case, then the author hardly ever gets a chance to correct the situation. If a setting or character becomes popular, a sequel seems to me to be more likely than a re-done version of the original story. Additionally, movies generally have lots of extra footage lying around, and the rise of the DVD special feature gave space for the extra bits and bobs.
I can think of two examples of an author’s cut in genre books: Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. And I won’t go into many details about either one, because I’ve never had the gumption to pick them up! I ended up reading the “butchered” versions long ago and can’t summon the energy to do some kind of textual comparison. By reading those comparisons online, I can see that longer version of The Stand is an especial treat for the fans, and I’m not one of their company. Similarly, Heinlein’s book.
Some published books feel like there already was an author’s cut – I’m looking at you, late-series Harry Potter. Again, fans don’t mind, but in the case of Harry Potter, there’s no “theatrical release” to go back to! If you’re grumpy with the excessive wordiness that Rowling used to wrap up the series, you’re out of luck.
Update (December 2010): Wertzone has been tracking the developments regarding the republication of the Chung Kuo saga, and I have to say this is a pretty clear example of an author’s cut. What was once an eight-book series is getting two new prequels and the addition of 500 000 words (I’m unclear whether that’s counting the prequels – the original 8 books are getting spruced up as well and divided into two separate volumes apiece), to bulk up to a twenty-book series! (With another 2 titles carved out somehow?) I’ve read the original versions, and I remember three things: a saga that was already long and complicated, tons of sexual violence, and a terrible ending that went way beyond “WTF!?” territory into comprehensive self-sabotage. I’m not sure if the extra verbiage will help fix any of those, unfortunately.